The Customer Is Always Right… Except When They Aren’t

Fancy Contact Form

A few months ago we implemented a fancy form on Zapier to help us collect better information from our customers about their requests of us. Over the course of nearly two years of operations we had a pretty good idea about the typical buckets that a customer’s request will fall under.

One of the major buckets? Features requests.

In fact, over the last few months we’ve had almost 1,000 new feature requests that were explicitly marked by the customer as feature requests. That doesn’t include requests that were actually feature requests, but marked under a different bucket by the customer.

So how does one go about balancing that many feature requests with the long-term vision of a product? This week’s StartupEdition digs into that topic.

The Customer is Always Right

The customer is always right. It’s something even kids learn growing up. A quick Google Search shows 204 million hits for that phrase. Clearly helping customers is on the minds of a lot of people.

Ironically, this is the first result:

And the truth is, the customer is usually right from their point of view. When a customer comes to you with a feature request or a complaint, they are right in that they have a problem. Something in their worldview is not satisfactory to the point that they have come to your domain, tracked down your contact form, and decided to send you a question or a request about your product.

That’s an awesome opportunity for you as a service provider to provide a solution to this person’s problem.

The tricky part is that while the customer is always right, they may not express themselves in a way that lends itself to solving their problem. In fact, the customer may very well be wrong about the thing they messaged you about despite them being right about the underlying problem they experience. The classic Henry Ford example about better horse and buggies vs cars comes to mind.

When The Customer is Wrong

The trickiest part about product development, especially for a product with some momentum, is that every Tom, Dick and Harry will start coming to you suggesting that you can solve their problems.

Often times they might seem like fairly innocuous requests like:

  • Offer a lower-tier pricing plan
  • Add more notification settings
  • Adding an advanced mode to do “cooler stuff”
  • Adding an iOS or Android app

While one or two of these in isolation don’t seem so bad, eventually you’ll have thousands of these low-level feature requests on your hand. Often times they’ll be contradictory too!

While each customer might be right. Clearly, in aggregate, some of those customers have to be wrong. And usually it boils down to them being wrong for your product at this point in time.

So, if some of the customers are right and some are wrong, how do you go about identifying what to do next? Especially if there are 1,000 things you could potentially be doing next?

Stop Chasing Problems

My good friend and excellent designer, Bryan Landers, pointed out this excellent Sean Ellis post to me a couple days ago.

I think Sean sums it up well. Once your product has achieved product/market fit (it’s likely well on it’s way when you start getting thousands of feature requests), it’s best to stop chasing problems. There will always be things that other people want your product to do.

Rather than attempting to solve all of them, which will effectively make it impossible to solve any of them, instead focus on any problem that allows the customer to achieve a must-have experience.

This might mean you turn away potentially good customers in the short term, all for the purpose of attracting great customers.

Over the long-term, you might find you’ll be able to solve some of those other problems as well. Maybe it’s through a platform or plugin ecosystem, maybe it’s through a separate partner product, or maybe it’s a feature that finds it’s way into the original product.

The key thing to remember is that while the customer may be right about their problem, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right problem for you to be solving at this exact second. You have to constantly be weighing priorities and making tradeoffs between short-term and long-term product improvements.

If you’re interested in how others manage customer feedback with long-term product improvements, check out this week’s StartupEdition. And if you have any interesting ways to solve this issue, let’s hear about it in the comments. :)

Posted on August 6th, 2013

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